Rock documentaries sometimes bore the hell out of me. Too often they’re specifically tailored for the super fans that care about the minutia of a band’s tour bus, or they’re just HD footage of a major concert that will be enjoyable for exactly one viewing. Even if the subject is eminently important interesting, such as Bob Dylan, eventually that mine will be tread and retread to the point of depletion. Dylan docs are a genre unto themselves, and lack the power they once had.
Much as I love ’em, I could’ve skipped The National’s documentary Mistaken For Strangers if it was one of the above. I don’t really need to see an hour of Matt Berninger arguing with Bryce Dessner in the recording studio. It doesn’t enhance my love for their albums. The National are lucky, then, that in the process of green lighting this documentary they stumbled upon a truly resonant, hilarious, endearing and meaningful story: Matt Berninger and his brother Tom, loving brothers but opposite ends of the spectrum, on tour and working through troubles.
Matt’s brother Tom is not in any way associated with The National, so why does he matter? Turns out that’s the central premise of the documentary. Ayesha Siddiqi described Tom Berninger as, “an irl Zach Galifianakis character but much warmer,” and that’s pretty much spot on. He’s awkward, kind of a buffoon, but an endearing underdog instead of a sociopath like Galafianakis’ character in The Hangover.
This is made all the more delightful by how much he contrasts with his famous, golden boy big brother. Remember, The National is a GQ band that always wears suits, opens for Obama rallys, and plays fashionable, melancholy indie rock. Matt never wears anything less than a collared shirt, even in leisure. Tom, by contrast, is a long-haired metalhead that makes grindhouse-style films about barbarian serial killers. It’s hard to believe they weren’t scripted.
Tom is brought along as a crew member generally as a favor, and he decides to bring a camcorder to document the international tour. He’s not very good at either job. As a member of the stage crew, he forgets to pay attention to the rider or misses the tour bus because he’s too busy partying at a bar. As a documentarian, he stumbles through hilariously empty questions like, “Do you ever get sleepy on stage?” and “Do you keep your wallet with you when you’re performing?”
Matt never wears anything less than a collared shirt, even in leisure. Tom, by contrast, is a long-haired metalhead that makes grindhouse-style films about barbarian serial killers. It’s hard to believe they weren’t scripted.
But instead of merely being a bad documentary, a story slowly takes shape as Tom struggles with validation and Matt struggles with trying to whip his brother into shape. The other band members are bewildered, sometimes frustrated by Tom, but the audience just wants him to succeed. If The National is a band that sings about sorrow, they don’t seem to have to live it day-to-day — Tom goes to great pains to keep up his general obliviousness, and he tries so hard just to be accepted and purposeful and valuable to people he cares about.
You want him to figure out the documentary, the very one you’re watching, and obtain the approval he’s looking for. The idea for a traditional music documentary starts to fall off the rails, and to their credit, the band doesn’t try to protect their image in the process. They don’t always look like saints, and the film’s conflict is more delicious for it.
It’s also constantly hilarious if you’re into humor based on social awkwardness. Tom is a character and every time he encounters someone of note, it’s like introducing a destabilizing element to a settled solution. Whether it’s Annie Clark, Will Arnett or even just the tour manager, every high stakes social interaction comes with the audience bracing themselves for both a laugh and the hope that he makes it through unscathed.
There’s a scene where Tom & Matt are in the back yard recording yet another talking-head piece, as Tom tries to salvage his hours of footage. “I shot myself crying last night, a little bit,” says Tom. Matt laughs incredulously. “…You were crying about the movie? It’s…it’s just a rock documentary.”
You would think that the lead singer of The National, a band of constant sorrow, would totally understand it. But at that point in the film, it is just a stupid rock doc. It’s not until Tom learns the value of using that yearning – the troubles, the anxiety, the inability to chase and pin down something greater and affirming – that it becomes something more. If he takes that pain and puts it in his art instead of constantly dodging it, it suddenly becomes greater and life affirming. There’s nothing more The National than that.
If it were a behind the scenes feature with some concert footage, it would be forgettable. But every great National song is built on rolling out that inner turmoil for all to see, and that’s fittingly where Mistaken for Strangers clicks. They’re incredibly lucky to have accidentally created this moving, poignant gem that crystallizes the band’s identity.
Mistaken for Strangers is available now on iTunes or On Demand.
Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter @wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.